10 out of 200: Between verifiability and privacy – Vasilios Mavroudis makes sense of our data

Meet Vasilios Mavroudis, computer scientist and one of this year’s 10 out of 200 young researchers participating in the 6th Heidelberg Laureate Forum from September 23-28, 2018.

Photo courtesy of Vasilios Mavroudis

What is your name and nationality?
My name is Vasilios Mavroudis and I grew up in Thessaloniki, Greece. I am a Greek and an Australian citizen.

Where did you study and where are you currently based?
I finished my B.Sc. in Computer Science at the University of Macedonia, Greece and then received my M.Sc. in Information Security from University College London (UCL) in the UK.

What is your current position?
I am currently based in London pursuing my PhD at UCL.

What is the focus of your research? What is your research project?
My PhD research explores cryptographic schemes for privacy-preserving statistics. It is often the case that given a set of sensitive data, we want to extract useful statistical insights about the data (as a whole) without accessing any individual records. My research focuses on methods that perform statistical computations on encrypted inputs. As an extension of that, I am also looking into public verifiability: Upon the release of the privacy-preserving statistics, public verifiability enables everyone to verify the integrity of the reported results, without any access to sensitive data. The intersection of those two requirements (public verifiability and privacy) makes the problem even more challenging and interesting.

Why did you become a computer scientist?
I was attracted by the applied nature of computer science and the immediate impact it has on our daily lives. I truly enjoy the fact that a single researcher can design and implement a solution to an important problem, from anywhere in the world, using only their laptop. This accessibility of the field differentiates computer science from other disciplines, as even people with no formal training or education can contribute their ideas and make a difference. Having said that, I am fascinated by science in general. I believe that science is a continuum and the different disciplines are all intertwined, extending each other.

What are some of the fundamental challenges you have faced in your academic career?
Due to the recent popularity of computer science, the field became quite “noisy”. This noise makes it often even harder to crystalize problems that matter and identify the areas where solutions should be sought. A prime example is “Blockchains”. Blockchains are a relatively new tool that recently became popular and a practical solution to very specific problems (e.g., data integrity). However, because of all the excitement that surrounds this new technology, there are many attempts to use blockchains to solve problems that can be solved, more efficiently, with other established tools. Moreover, the landscape became extremely politicized with various for-profit groups promoting their spin of the technology. This trend is expected to eventually subside, once a consensus is reached regarding the uses and applications of the blockchain technology.

What do you feel are the greatest pressures facing scientists today?
A career in science provides a lot of flexibility and mental space to design and pursue one’s own projects and ideas. However, scientists are often faced with the pressure of constantly publishing a steady stream of papers. This disincentivizes more risky projects that may take a few years to mature or projects that have a higher risk of producing a negative result. Moreover, in the System and Information Security field, negative results are rarely published. All these hinder the exploration of less-understood areas and drive scientists to pursue more straightforward and potentially less ambitious projects.

What are you doing besides research?
One of my favorite things to do is side projects. Some of them diverge completely from my main research focus, while others still lie within the computer security and privacy realm. For instance, we recently formed an interdisciplinary team to design a game-based approach that teaches the basics of security and privacy to non-experts. A list of my past and present projects can be found on my website. I would be very happy to hear from anyone with fresh ideas for cool, new projects! Besides these, I enjoy playing the guitar and the serenity of mountain hikes.

Which laureates present at the forum would you really like to talk to and what do you want to ask them?
Building bridges to connect otherwise distant fields is often the first step to ground-breaking research. At the HLF, I will seek to learn more about laureates’ experiences in conducting interdisciplinary research. For example, if I have the chance to meet Ron Rivest, I would ask him about the methodological challenges he may have encountered when coming up with his groundbreaking and often counterintuitive schemes. For instance, Ron Rivest is well-known for his contribution to the RSA scheme, but, in my opinion, his ThreeBallot verifiable voting scheme is equally remarkable as it provides privacy and verifiability without the use of encryption. As explained to me by the friend who prompted me to apply for this year’s HLF, there is a good balance between seminars and environments for spontaneous conversations, such as coffee and lunch breaks. In my experience, these can lead to future collaborations and a genuine exchange of knowledge. It was through such a discussion that I became aware of Cryptool, an open-source encryption tool, while I was still an undergraduate student. I decided to give it a try and after spending some time playing with it, I eventually managed to find a bug in the implementation of one of the algorithms. As a result, I got to work with the security division of Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt for 6 months and get my hands on even more challenging encryption problems with practical implications. I’m sure that HLF will be an incredible opportunity to discuss the future of computer science and engage in fruitful discussions with both prominent and young scientists.

What is Cryptographic Hardware in one sentence and how do you think this technology is going to change the world?
Cryptographic Hardware is your credit card, your sim card, and the military grade chip that a satellite may use to protect sensitive data and encrypt its communications.
Cryptographic Hardware has already changed the world and the way we do things, multiple times. Each time it enabled what was previously impossible. For instance, it allows users to be certain that no one can use a lost debit card without the owner’s PIN. It also protects communications by making it impossible for anyone to overtake a phone number without the owner’s SIM card and PIN. As rule of thumb, a technology can be considered successful, when it is taken for granted by its users. As discussed above, there are many examples of cryptographic hardware so deeply embedded into popular culture that we don’t even think about the technologies that make them possible.

Jens-Steffen Scherer is a neuroscientist and science communicator. Besides his studies at the University of Oldenburg, he works as an author for the Südwestrundfunk (SWR) and for the National Institute for Science Communication (NaWik). In 2018 Jens-Steffen won the 8th Science Slam of Oldenburg. ______________________________________________________________________________________________ Jens-Steffen Scherer ist Neurowissenschaftler und Wissenschaftskommunikator. Neben seinem Studium an der Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg arbeitet er als freier Autor für den Südwestrundfunk (SWR) und beim Nationalen Institut für Wissenschaftskommunikation (NaWik). 2018 gewann Jens-Steffen den 8. Oldenburger Science Slam.

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